The Client Insights of Monique Cohen

> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Monique Cohen just stepped down as head of Microfinance Opportunities, the non-profit organization she founded ten years ago. She is leaving MFOpps in very capable hands. Guy Stuart, formerly of the Kennedy School of Government, has already started as the new CEO. This change of leadership provides a good moment to pause and recognize the significant contributions Monique has made not only through Microfinance Opportunities but also as a researcher and thinker about microfinance clients.

Monique staked her position from the start as a champion for the client. She argues that anyone offering financial services to the poor needs a deep understanding of, and even empathy with, the poor. And by empathy, I do not mean sentimentality, but the intent to fully listen to and be guided by what low income people say about their situation and their views. This requires a market researcher to set aside preconceived ideas as much as possible, and draw conclusions from client-based evidence, both qualitative and quantitative.

By looking at prospective clients carefully, Monique generated important insights. And since I’ve known Monique quite a long time, I remember when she first talked about some of them. In fact, many of Monique’s insights became part of my own understanding about money and the poor. My first lesson from Monique was about how people in Andean cities finance the construction of their houses through incremental, one-room-at-a-time building patterns. This insight is at the basis of successful housing microfinance in Latin America, which offers relatively small short term home improvement loans to support that process.

In the late 1990s, Monique’s work on the AIMS project at USAID highlighted vulnerability as a central concept in understanding the lives of the poor and the function of financial services in helping people protect themselves against such vulnerabilities. This focus on coping with vulnerability has become important in enabling the microfinance field to gain a more nuanced understanding of the impact of its services on its clients.

When she started MFOpps, Monique intended to assist microfinance institutions learn how to learn from clients.  And MFOpps did this. But MFOpps broke new ground when it received one of its first major grants from Citi Foundation to explore financial literacy. At that time the topic was barely recognized as a significant concern. MFOpps developed some of the first financial literacy curricula aimed at low income residents of developing countries. It worked on creative delivery mechanisms and wrestled with the still-daunting challenges of getting messages to people effectively and efficiently. In this way Microfinance Opportunities contributed to the growth of knowledge about financial capability, helping to move the topic to the forefront of financial inclusion.

These days, Monique is participating in a working group on financial capability as part of CFI’s Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign. In her feisty way, she challenges the group not to impose their middle class, western definition of financial capability, but to remember that clients will – and should – define financial capability as they see it, in line with their own reality.

More recently, Monique and Guy have been doing financial diaries research with users of mobile money in Kenya and Malawi. Monique’s latest lesson for me, which comes out of that work, is that product designers who want to attract savers should pay more attention to when people can put money aside, and not get so hung up on why they want to do so. This observation also came out of research on rural residents in Latin America by Jacqueline Urquizo.

In moving on from Microfinance Opportunities, Monique has left in place an organization that occupies a unique and influential place in the financial inclusion world. She’ll now be free to do research on her own, without worrying about management and fundraising, and that’s a good thing. I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to learn something important from her.

For more information on CFI’s Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign, sign up for updates here.

Image Credit: Microfinance Opportunities

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